11 top food giants vow to end junk food ads

Eleven of the nation's biggest food and beverage companies are junking ads for junk food on children's TV shows.

Products include a host of sugar-laden cereals, candy and soda. They include such brands as Trix cereal — famously advertised for decades as being "for kids."

The voluntary pledge was announced at a Federal Trade Commission forum Wednesday morning in Washington. Companies aim to placate legislators who might crack down on food marketing in a period of increasing childhood obesity.

But critics say that the self-regulated pledges don't go far enough and that advertising guidelines without an industrywide standard or method of enforcement won't do much good.

"We shouldn't be counting on the food industry to safeguard public health," said Susan Linn, a Harvard professor and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. "Corporations are bound by law to increase shareholder profits, not to promote the well being of children."

The pledges, from companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Hershey Co., largely restrict advertising on programming or media targeted at children under 12.

That's a sore point for critics, who say that children don't just watch shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. According to Nielsen data, for instance, "American Idol" attracted 2.4 million viewers from 2 to 11 years old in March. Coca-Cola is a sponsor of "American Idol," and its messages appear frequently throughout the program.

The other companies involved are Cadbury Adams USA, Campbell Soup Company, General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Inc., Mars, Inc., McDonald's USA, PepsiCo, Inc. and Unilever.

The pledges loosely follow USDA dietary guidelines but in varying degrees. General Mills, for instance, will stop marketing to children anything with more than 12 grams of sugar and 175 calories per serving. But cereals such as Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs still pass the test. And Kellogg's policy, which was introduced earlier this year in response to threatened litigation, still allows Frosted Flakes and Fruit Twistables to be marketed to children, said Margot Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"This gets rid of marketing of the very worst junk food," she said, "but it doesn't mean that only truly healthy foods are going to be marketed to kids."

In a statement, Nickelodeon called the moves "very important and positive steps forward in setting new nutritional guidelines and marketing standards." Said Cartoon Network said: "We are encouraged these 11 companies are taking additional steps to provide kids with a healthier line of food options."

Other changes the companies will make include limiting the use of licensed characters to market food to children and introducing ads that use brands to promote healthier lifestyle choices.

The move comes amid an increased threat to legislate such marketing. A task force led by Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is working on a report on media and childhood obesity.

If the task force determines that these pledges do not go far enough, legislation might follow, said Gary Knell, the task force's volunteer chair and the chief executive of the Sesame Workshop.

But the companies say they can do it on their own, with some help from the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which will monitor the pledges. Participating companies have agreed to provide information showing how they've complied with the pledge, said C. Lee Peeler, the council's executive vice president.

"We're very committed to the concept of self-regulation," said John Faulkner, a spokesman for Campbell Soup. "All of our advertising is reviewed by our CEO, and we look very seriously at what the message is."

Many companies, however, say that it is a parent's role to limit a child's intake of unhealthy foods and that restricting advertising can go only so far.

"All of our products are wholesome and suitable for consumers of all ages," said Diana Garza, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola. "It's a question of balance."

Susan Sanford of Los Angeles, whose 11- and 14-year-olds sometimes nag her for products like such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Yogos or Dibs, said it's her role to decide which products they can and can't have.

She worries that pulling ad dollars from children's programming could affect the quality of the shows and wonders how effective it is, since her children see countless ads for junk food. "Media is everywhere," she said.

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